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“Fine Dignity, Picturesque Beauty, and Serious Purpose”:

The Reorientation of Suffrage Media in the Twentieth Century

Emily Scarbrough, Author

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Who Suffragists Were Not

If suffragists were careful to present themselves as martyrs, militants, citizens, vanguards, and allegory, they were equally careful in how they were not represented. Just as suffragists dedicated themselves to promoting the Allender Girl model, in doing so, they also made it very clear the people whom they did not resemble.

            One distinguishing characteristic of the model that suffragists promoted was her race. The suffrage woman was always white. Racism was certainly a major component of society during the Progressive Era, but the suppression of black women within the woman’s suffrage movement seems like a calculated attempt by suffragists to present themselves as non-radical. If they embraced the support of black woman’s suffragists like Mary Church Terrell or Ida B. Wells, they opened the group up for criticism from the numerous racists whose support they sought to win. Clearly suffrage aligned itself against black women. They refused to allow black women to march in their parades, appear in their pageants or political cartoons. African American women were absent from the pages of The Suffragist. In order to be considered a nonthreatening organization, suffragists kept black women out of their films.

           Both the NWP and NAWSA created and perpetuated a singular image of a woman suffragist. The ideal was white, young, educated, and middle-class. Most active suffragists were middle-class women who had received higher education at universities like Vassar. Suffragists so desperately wanted to distance themselves from the poor that they proposed a float for a 1913 parade that included hobos. “Tramps,” one article for the Chicago Tribune wrote, “to appear in Washington, D.C. as horrible example.”[1] The float was intended to show that uneducated, unmotivated homeless people had more political authority than women with degrees and ambitions. The woman suffragists wanted to find “four or five of the toughest hobos” near the nation’s capital to sport a sign reading, “but we kin vote.”[2] The float never made it into the parade, but the suffragists clearly resented their relative lack of political rights.

    In a special issue of Life magazine that was created by suffrage supporters, despite the publication’s reputation as antisuffrage, the cartoon “Woman is Not Fit for the Ballot” appeared. The illustration features a motley crew of black men, illiterate southerners, immigrants, mobsters, and crime bosses. It implies, much like the proposed hobo float, that if men of these backgrounds deserved the vote, women needed the vote. Women would counteract all of these suspect political leanings. Further, it suggests an inherent mistake in allowing immoral and uneducated men to vote, while women, the supposed moral center of society and often educated, put their futures in the hands of these ignorant or corrupt voters. The message is again both racist and elitist. These two currents helped appeal to the majority of white middle-class Americans whose support suffragists struggle to win.

            Suffragists clearly crafted an identity of who they were and who they were not. In doing so, suffragists projected an identity to the American public. The best way to gauge how the general audience responded is by examining their own media that emerged as a response to the Allender Girl. It is important to note whether the media outside of suffragist control either adopted or rejected the suffrage model to determine how successful suffragists were in redefining their identity.

[1] “Hobos Will Join Suffrage March,” Chicago Tribune, February 11, 1913, 9.

[2] Ibid.

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